In his memoir, Philip Caputo explores the question of when it is justifiable to kill. This question is complicated by the fact that the U.S. Marines initially enter Da Nang, South Vietnam to provide security and defense for the ARVN and are not present to engage in battle. When the role of the Americans quickly changes to that of combat, the shift in expectations leaves everyone with a vague understanding of their purpose, which is further complicated by an inability to distinguish the Viet Cong (VC) from the South Vietnamese, whom the Marines are sent to assist. More troublingly, Caputo begins to question the legitimacy of the United States’ intentions in Vietnam. Caputo addresses the morality of war for a soldier who is sent to fight battles that do not seem to have a clear objective or a clear enemy. His purpose in illustrating this moral ambiguity is to define the Vietnam War as both unjust and purposeless, which makes the loss of so many young lives at its expense indefensible.
Caputo reveals the war’s murky morality by recounting the ways in which the Marine Corps twists immoral behavior into something good by dehumanizing the enemy. During an inspection tour of Vietnam, General Greene, the Marine Corps commandant, tells a group of marines that their only purpose is to kill VC. Caputo internalizes this understanding of his mission, which causes his relationship to the war to shift from distant to personal. He does not regard the enemy as fellow men but as objects to kill, as though in sport. The rest of his company also adopts this callous attitude, which is aided by their increasing frustration with the “mud, heat, leeches, and clawing thorns,” as well as the overwhelming fear of being mortally attacked by a VC from his hiding place. Caputo describes this new mood as “savage,” though without the romanticism of his previous vision of Beowulfian savagery. It is an atmosphere in which killing is no longer about defense but instead an attempt to exert emotional control in frustrating circumstances.
When PFC Marsden shoots a VC in the face with his pistol, for example, he registers confusion with his own action. One version of the story is that Marsden “fired in self-defense” when the VC tried to throw a grenade. Another story claims that the enemy was already dead when Marsden shot him. Both narratives protect the legitimacy of Marsden’s actions while painting the VC as a necessary object to kill. Regardless of the truth, Marsden’s actions seem “perfectly natural” and in keeping with General Greene’s orders to kill VC. Thus, Marsden’s moral confusion over his behavior is irrelevant in response to the Marine Corps’ belief that his actions have fulfilled their desired objective.
When the marines search the body of the VC whom Marsden has shot, Caputo is relieved that “no photographs, no letters or identification” have been found on the man. This allows Caputo and the others to think of him “not as a dead human being…but as a dead enemy.” Caputo thinks that, as long as he can objectify the Viet Cong as “enemies” that exist only to be destroyed, he can remain focused on his objective without worrying about taking the life of a fellow man with his own family and social context. This helps the men maintain emotional distance and avoid moral questions over their involvement in the conflict.
When Caputo is put on trial for murdering two VCs, he is forced to come to terms with the moral ambiguity of war. This situation helps him realize that the war is both unjust and entirely purposeless. The Marine Corps brings Caputo and Lance Corporal Crowe up on premeditated murder charges for killing Le Dung and Le Du, two members of the Viet Cong who initially eluded capture by pretending to be students. Caputo finds it ironic that the Marine Corps taught the men to kill but are now “going to court-martial [them] for killing.” The absurdity of the situation reveals to Caputo that the Marine Corps is as willing to destroy the lives of its own soldiers to protect its reputation as it is willing to send young men to die with the belief that this sacrifice will minimize the spread of Communism in foreign lands.
Caputo notices that the investigating officer has not “submitted any explanatory or extenuating circumstances” on the form containing the charges against him. Caputo realizes that the war is the extenuating circumstance, and that the killings can only be explained within the context of the war. However, if the authorities acknowledge that they sent marines to “a war whose sole aim was to kill Viet Cong, a war in which those ordered to do the killing often could not distinguish the Viet Cong from civilians,” then this would “raise a host of ambiguous moral questions,” particularly about the “morality of American intervention in Vietnam.” Thus, the Marine Corps chooses to portray Caputo and Crowe as soldiers gone awry, acting with their own purpose instead of according to orders.
Despite the shady intentions of the Marine Corps, Caputo cannot help but to acknowledge his complicity with the war’s objectives. He realizes that there is “murder in [his] heart” and that this led him to “[transmit] his inner violence to the men.” This acknowledgement of the violence within him circles back to his wish at the beginning of the memoir to experience something more “savage.” Though the Marine Corps succeeded in training Caputo to express his violent impulses, those impulses were already there—the results of fantasies of an untamed early America as well as Cold War antagonism. By the end of the memoir, Caputo realizes that his personal values are inseparable from the United States’ militaristic, political, and economic ambitions and that, to evolve, he will need “to live for [himself] on [his] own terms.”
Caputo never resolves the question of when it is justifiable to kill, as it doesn’t have a simple answer. Instead, he walks the reader through instances in which he thought it was justifiable to kill. In each instance, he acts according to what he thinks are the Marine Corps’ wishes. When the institution fails to protect him after he agreed to fulfill its agenda, Caputo’s sense of the moral justness of his actions crumbles. He concludes with the wish to live on his own terms because he realizes that there are no fixed truths determining morality. He was misguided in seeking moral purpose from the Marine Corps, whose own intentions in Vietnam remain morally dubious.
The Morality of War ThemeTracker
The Morality of War Quotes in A Rumor of War
War is always attractive to young men who know nothing about it, but we had also been seduced into uniform by Kennedy’s challenge to “ask what you can do for your country” and by the missionary idealism he had awakened in us.
A man saw the heights and depths of human behavior in Vietnam, all manner of violence and horrors so grotesque that they evoked more fascination than disgust. Once I had seen pigs eating napalm-charred corpses—a memorable sight, pigs eating roast people.
We broke up into teams and started the search, which amounted to a disorganized rummaging through the villagers’ belongings […] Most of the huts were empty, but in one we found a young woman nursing an infant whose head was covered in running sores […] The absolute indifference in her eyes began to irritate me […] because her passivity seemed to be a denial of our existence, as if we were nothing more to her than a passing wind that had temporarily knocked a few things out of place.
On the way back, I saw an example of the paradoxical kindness-and-cruelty that made Vietnam such a peculiar war. One of our corpsman was treating the infant with skin ulcers […] At the same time, and only a few yards away, our interpreter, a Vietnamese marine lieutenant, roughly interrogated the woman who had been tending the fire. The lieutenant was yelling at her and waving a pistol in front of her ravaged face […] This went on for several minutes. Then his voice rose to a hysterical pitch, and holding the forty-five by the barrel, he raised his arms as if to pistol-whip her. I think he would have, but Peterson stepped in and stopped him.
Crowds of children and teenage boys run alongside the convoy. Many of the children have distended bellies and ulcerous skin, decades of wisdom in their eyes and four-letter words on their lips […] The older people of the village remain aloof […] The whores are the only adults who pay attention to us […] The girls are pathetic to look at, dressed in Western-style pants and so heavily made up that they look like caricatures of what they are. They make obscene gestures and signal prices with their hands, like traders on the floor of a commodities market.
Stumbling forward, I almost tripped over the VC […] An enormous amount of blood had poured out of him and he was lying in it, a crimson puddle in which floated bits of skin and white cartilage. There was nothing on him, no photographs, no letters or identification. That would disappoint the boys at intelligence, but it was fine with me. I wanted this boy to remain anonymous; I wanted to think of him, not as a dead human being, with a name, age, and family, but as a dead enemy.
One photo showed the VC wearing their motley uniforms and striking heroic poses; another showed one of the guerrillas among his family. There were also several wallet-sized pictures of girl friends or wives. The notes written in the corners of these were probably expressions of love and fidelity, and I wondered if the other side had a system, as we did, for notifying the families of casualties […] What we had found gave to the enemy the humanity I wished to deny him.
Before the fire-fight, those marines fit both definition of the word infantry, which means either a “body of soldiers equipped for service on foot” or “infants, boys, youths collectively.” The difference was that the second definition could no longer be applied to them. Having received that primary sacrament of war, baptism of fire, their boyhoods were behind them […] We’ve been under fire, we’ve shed blood, now we’re men […] some were trying to master their emotions by talking them out; others masked their feelings under a surface toughness.
The horror lay in the recognition that the body, which is supposed to be the earthly home of an immortal soul, which people spend so much time feeding, conditioning, and beautifying, is in fact only a fragile case stuffed full of disgusting matter […] The sight of mutilation did more than cause me physical revulsion; it burst the religious myths of my Catholic childhood.
Their flat, steady gazes had the same indifference I had seen in the eyes of the woman whose house I had searched in Hoi-Vuc. It was as if they regarded the obliteration of their village as a natural disaster and, accepting it as part of their lot, felt no more toward us than they might feel toward a flood […] Americans would have done something: glared angrily, shaken their fists, wept, run away, demanded compensation. These villagers did nothing, and I despised them for it […] Confronted by disease, bad harvests, and above all by the random violence of endless war, they had acquired a capacity to accept what we would have found unacceptable […] Their survival demanded this of them. Like the great Annamese Mountains, they endured.
At the same time, I knew I had become less naïve in the way I looked at the men in the battalion. I now knew my early impressions had been based not on reality but on a boyhood diet of war movies and blood-and-guts novels […] I now realized that some of them were not so decent or good. Many had petty jealousies, hatreds, and prejudices. And an arrogance tempered their ingrained American idealism (“one marine’s worth ten of these VC”) […] Rather, I had come to recognize them as fairly ordinary men who sometimes performed extraordinary acts in the stress of combat, acts of bravery as well as cruelty.
The corps would go on living and functioning without him, but it was aware of having lost something irreplaceable. Later in the war, that sort of feeling became rarer in infantry battalions. Men were killed, evacuated with wounds, or rotated home at a constant rate, then replaced by other men who were killed, evacuated, or rotated in their turn. By that time, a loss only meant a gap in the line that needed filling.
I would be deserting them, my friends. That was the real crime a deserter committed: he ran out on his friends. And perhaps that was why, in spite of everything, we fought as hard as we did. We had no other choice. Desertion was unthinkable. Each of us fought for himself and for the men beside him. The only way out of Vietnam, besides death or wounds, was to fight your way out. We fought to live. But it was pleasant to toy with the idea of desertion, to pretend I had a choice.
I had ceased to fear death because I had ceased to care about it. Certainly, I had no illusions that my death, if it came, would be a sacrifice. It would merely be a death, and not a good one either […] I was a beetle. We were all beetles, scratching for survival in the wilderness. Those who had lost the struggle had not changed anything by dying. The deaths of Levy, Simpson, Sullivan, and the others had not made any difference. Thousands of people died in each week in the war, and the sum of all their deaths did not make any difference. The war went on without them, so it would go on without me. My death would not alter a thing. Walking down the trail, I could not remember having felt an emotion more sublime or liberating than that indifference toward my own death.
Yet, he is also attracted by the danger, for he knows he can overcome his fear only by facing it. His blind rage then begins to focus on the men who are the source of the danger—and of his fear. It concentrates inside him, and through some chemistry is transformed into a fierce resolve to fight until the danger ceases to exist. But this resolve, which is sometimes called courage, cannot be separated from the fear that has aroused it […] This inner, emotional war produces a tension almost sexual in its intensity. It is too painful to endure for long. All a soldier can think about is the moment when he can escape his impotent confinement and release his tension […] Nothing matters except the final, critical instant when he leaps out into the violent catharsis he both seeks and dreads.
I wondered why the investigating officer had not submitted any explanatory or extenuating circumstances. Later, after I had time to think things over, I drew my own conclusion: the explanatory or extenuating circumstance was the war. The killings had occurred in war. They had occurred, moreover, in a war whose sole aim was to kill Viet Cong […] The deaths of Le Dung and Le Du could not be divorced from the nature and conduct of the war. As I had come to see it, America could not intervene in a people’s war without killing some of the people. But to raise those points in explanation or extenuation would be to raise a host of ambiguous moral questions. It could even raise the question of the morality of American intervention in Vietnam […] If we were found guilty, the Marine Corps’ institutional conscience would be clear.
There was murder in my heart and, in some way, through tone of voice, a gesture, or a stress on kill rather than capture, I had transmitted my inner violence to the men. They saw in my overly aggressive manner a sanction to vent their own brutal impulses. I lay there remembering the euphoria we had felt afterward, the way we had laughed, and then the sudden awakening to guilt. And yet, I could not conceive of the fact as one of premeditated murder. It had not been committed in a vacuum. It was a direct result of the war. The thing we had done was a result of what the war had done to us.